Some weeks all the action seems confined to one or two of the lessons, leaving a third out in the cold. My attention this week has been focused on the dramatic Gospel and timely Old Testament lessons. The Epistle has mostly fallen through the cracks.
In a lectionary bible study earlier this week, a participant kept pulling us back to Paul. When I read these lines from 1 Thessalonians, I ask myself why this is an Advent reading at all. Except for the last few lines, it has almost nothing to do with "the Lord's coming." Instead, it's a purely occasional text intended for a very specific audience--one who received this letter 2000 years ago. But this participant kept pulling us back to the text, asking us to consider how Paul is speaking to us--specifically to us.
"And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."
After an hour of conversation, I asked the group what they would preach on if they were climbing into the pulpit, I heard a range of answers, most of which were focused on the question of when God's kingdom will (or has already) come. Then, our friend brought us back by sharing her response: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love..." For her, it was the most important line in the week's lessons. She wouldn't let us leave it. She wanted us to hear what Paul says.
At first, I wondered why this lesson from 1 Thess. was included in the readings for 1 Advent. Yes, I get that the closing sentence mentions that the Lord is coming, but why else? Couldn't they have found a more Advent-appropriate text for this week? But if you dig a little deeper, I think you discover the Advent message in Paul's deepest wish.
The "holiday season," as our culture likes to call it, is recognized as a time set apart for sentimentality. Even the secular humanists among us feel the urge to reach out in love for others. Shouldn't that be our Advent message as well? Not because of the sentimentality of the season but because we are preparing ourselves to receive again the greatest expression of God's love the world has ever known?
I got a call from a friend and local newspaper reporter yesterday. She wanted me to talk about why our church observes the season of Advent. I told her that we don't think Christians can merely show up on one of the two biggest days of the year (Christmas or Easter) without preparing our hearts to receive the overwhelming love that gets expressed on those days. We need some time to get ready. And how can we get ready for Christmas? By orienting our hearts to receive God's love to the point of overflowing. That's the real message of Advent. And there it is--buried in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.